Thursday, January 7, 2010

Thanks, Dear Readers!

Thanks, dear readers, for the comments in reponse to the "Ask Me" post. Keep the suggestions coming!

As for recently read books, I just finished a couple of short novels last week while the cold white stuff was falling from the sky and the Internet was too overcrowded to post in the blog.

Both books were a bit on the heavy and grim side, but very well done, well worth reading, and each one haunting in its own right.

The first one was a short debut novel by a young guy who teaches high school in Brooklyn by the name of Ian MacKenzie: City of Strangers. He's a new author for me, of course, but one that I will look for in the future. The book has the feel of a crime thriller and, at the same time, a literary novel about universals of love, loss, guilt, and ambiguity.

The very contemporary story takes place in New York City, and the atmosphere, the look, and the feel of the city function as an important character in the book. The plot involves two half-brothers, long-estranged from each other and from their single, silent male parent. Now they are dealing with the death of the father, a man once infamous for being an "American Nazi." The older brother, who converted to Judaism and married to a Jewish woman, is a hedge fund guy, with tons of money and drive, but who is facing anguish as his insider dealings are coming to trial. The much younger brother is a freelance writer, down on his luck, broke, and suffering horribly from a recent divorce. He happens upon two drunken brutes beating up a young Middle Eastern guy on the street, and this encounter is only the beginning of increasing complexity and violence. The context is tense, dangerous, brimming with the ethnic pressures of post-911 NYC. The prose is fluid, compelling, and suspenseful. The ending is terrifying and haunting.

The second short one is a new novel by the extremely prolific and dependably engaging writer Joyce Carol Oates, called Fair Maiden. The protagonist is a sixteen-year-old girl from a lower-class family in New Jersey. Her father, the gambler, is gone; her mother spends time and money in Atlantic City as well, with men, drugs, and drink. Her sisters just want to avoid loaning the mother more money. But the girl is bright and pretty and wiley for her age. She's escaped to the shore to serve as a summertime nanny for a demanding middle-class family and their two kids. By chance, she meets an intriguing man who is quite elderly and very rich, one of the pillars of the "old money" community. He's cultured and charming and adores her. He paints her. He composes music. And he has a sad, frightening, and mysterious "mission" in mind for her. The writing is wonderful, as always with JYO, and catches you up in its dramatic and haunting arc -- feverish, sardonic, mythic, and yet so contemporary. The ending, as with the prior novel, is terrifying and haunting.

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